June 7, 2023 - 4:00pm

Look at the conversation around the podcast Whatever, a sprawling, five-hour-long “dating advice” roundtable discussion with an impressive 4.1 million subscribers on YouTube, and you’ll see hundreds of people making the same claim: it’s bait to make women look dumb.

Of course Whatever is bait. The hosts routinely invite “easy target” guests (like Ali Weezy, a morbidly obese 23-year-old beauty influencer with the audacity to carry herself with confidence in spite of her physical shortcomings) with the twin intentions of setting them up and then clipping those set-ups into 30-second TikToks, which regularly go viral. Naturally, the reason they go viral is that they hit every branch falling out of the “lowest common denominator outrage” tree. They even employ borderline pornographic headlines like “OnlyFans girl gets ROASTED”.

But as Magdalene Taylor points out in Vice, neither this format nor its success is a new phenomenon. Take, for example, Howard Stern: he’s been a master of the craft for over 30 years. The virality of the clips isn’t new either, even if the scale might be. For anyone over the age of 25, chances are that they’ve seen dozens of Howard Stern clips without ever listening to a single episode. And if not Stern, then some other American shock jock or daytime television host, like Maury Povich, Dr. Phil, or Jerry Springer.

What is interesting, however, is that this entertainment format is experiencing a renaissance after being declassé for at least half a decade. Beyond Whatever, there’s Manosphere icon Rollo Tomassi’s The Rational Male, the smaller but just as incendiary Vers and Lukas, Fresh and Fit, Andrew Tate’s Tate Speech, The Grift Report with Hotep Jesus. There are even female equivalents, too.

But there’s something else going on with the success of Whatever and similar podcasts. It’s not necessarily fair to say that it’s because of — as Brooke Kato suggested for the New York Post — a “disturbing new fad” to belittle female guests. The real reason is a lot less cynical or, at least, a lot less hateful than that.

For entertainment to work, especially in the Digital Age, it needs to be participatory. In an increasingly atomised world, we don’t want to be alienated from our podcasts too. Meditative art is out; participatory mediawhere the audience can play an active role — is in. 

Most podcasts flop because they’re just not parasocial enough: there’s no easily identifiable way for the audience to latch on. The best of anything online allows the audience member to feel like they’re involved in something, even if all they’re doing is reading or listening. It has to be discourse-worthy, even if that discourse isn’t particularly enlightening or challenging. It’s more like improv or text-based roleplaying. Podcasts like Whatever are the perfect fodder for that “yes and”-style of communication. They present binary issues where people can easily pick a side and argue for days or weeks if they so desire.  

It’s hardly distinguishable from arguments about politics. There’s no meaningful difference between this and the latest round of the Current Thing, or the most recent incendiary op-ed. In essence, it serves as fan fiction for people who don’t write fan fiction. The reason the format doesn’t change is that the medium of discussion hasn’t changed — the content is just updated for a new audience. 

Why does dating seem to have this effect more successfully than politics? For a start, it’s more personal. Pretty much everyone feels strongly about relationships in a way that not everyone can really bite into a question like, “Why is Ron DeSantis going to lose the Republican primary?” Sex, unlike GOP primary candidates, sells — and that will likely never change.

Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.